Spencer Gallagher thought he was being an enlightened, modern employer when he introduced flexible working to his new media agency in January 2002. Yet by October 2003, he had seen morale and productivity plummet and his staff were as relieved as he was when he decided to return to the old nine to five routine. Is this an early indication that flexible working is not such a great idea as we all thought?
Gallagher set up his agency, Bluhalo, in 1999, and since then it has delivered creative and technical digital projects to around 1,300 clients. Last year, it turned over £1.6m and has a staff of 28. Gallagher sees people development as one of his key roles as managing director, explaining that: “Our business relies on the quality and enthusiasm of my employees, so I have always worked hard to build a happy and productive team.”
Towards the end of 2001, he heard a radio programme about how flexible working was improving productivity in France and this set him thinking about how he could apply it to his business.
“For us, the real benefit was that our staff could spend less time in traffic jams or on trains, and more time in the office,” he says. So, he consulted with each member of staff on the idea, and received a positive reaction. Around a third wanted to start and finish early, a third preferred a later slot and the final third were happy as they were.
Initially, the experiment was successful. “Everyone liked arriving at a time that suited their commuting patterns and working style. I got a lot of feedback from staff saying how much they got done between seven and nine before the phones started ringing. We got Investors in People accreditation last year and the assessors liked our flexible working arrangements. I was a big fan as it meant I could get to the gym before work,” Gallagher says.
However, problems with productivity and morale soon surfaced. While individual productivity increased, overall productivity fell due to the lack of time for employees to communicate with each other and co-ordinate projects. Clients became frustrated when their contacts were not in the office during normal working hours. Unable to have meetings, the team lost cohesion, and ironically, flexible working led to people being less flexible about staying late to finish a project.
So, in October 2003, Gallagher decided to reverse the flexible working policy. While most members of staff supported this move, it was still a difficult transition as many employees had got used to buying cheaper, off-peak train tickets. However, since returning to the nine to five routine, morale at Bluhalo has soared. Gallagher recently conducted an anonymous survey of every member of staff, asking them to rate their job satisfaction out of five. Without exception, they rated it at either four and a half or five.
Gallagher does not believe that flexible working is necessarily a bad idea. In his view, it is simply not appropriate for every organisation: “It didn’t work with us because we work as a team and we are client-facing. But for organisations where staff work as individuals and have little client contact, I think it could work very well.”